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Privacy Versus Security At Heart Of Apple Phone Decrypt Order

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Privacy Versus Security At Heart Of Apple Phone Decrypt Order


By Jim Finkle and Joseph Menn

(Reuters) – A court order demanding that Apple Inc (AAPL.O) help the U.S. government unlock the encrypted iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters is shaping up as a crucial test case of how far the government can go in forcing technology companies to help security and intelligence investigations.

Law enforcement agencies have for years faced off against tech firms and privacy advocates over their ability to monitor digital communications, and the government to date has largely lost the battle.

But the specific circumstances of the San Bernardino case, a young married couple who sympathized with Islamic State militants and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in a shooting rampage at a holiday party, could give government officials the legal precedent they need to reverse the tide.

A federal judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to investigators seeking to read the data on an iPhone 5C that had been used by Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, carried out the shootings.

The government argues that the iPhone is a crucial piece of evidence. But civil liberties groups warn that forcing companies to crack their own encryption endangers the technical integrity of the Internet and threatens not just the privacy of customers but potentially that of citizens of any country.

On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates came out strongly on the side of law enforcement, raising the possibility of another legislative effort to require tech companies to put “backdoors” in their products.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Department of Justice was asking Apple for access to just one device, a central part of the government’s argument, which Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has said was “simply not true.”

“They are not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor to one of their products,” Earnest told reporters at a daily briefing.

The Department of Justice stressed in a statement on Wednesday that its request was “narrowly tailored,” and chided Apple. “It is unfortunate that Apple continues to refuse to assist the department in obtaining access to the phone of one of the terrorists involved in a major terror attack on U.S. soil.”

Most technology security experts, including many who have served in government, say technical efforts to provide government access to encrypted devices inevitably degrades security for everyone. It is an argument that has been made since the 1990s, when the government tried and failed to force tech companies to incorporate a special chip into their products for surveillance purposes.

“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone,” Cook said in a statement on Tuesday. “But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”


Representatives of several other tech companies did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling. Not surprisingly, however, trade groups that count thousands of software companies, smartphone makers and network security firms as members decried the government position, while law enforcement groups backed the Justice Department.

The industry was “committed to working with law enforcement to keep Americans safe” the Software & Information Industry Association said, but in the Apple case, “the government’s position is overbroad and unwise.”

The Computing Technology Industry Association said that if the order was carried out, “it could give the FBI the power to call for some sort of back end to encryption whenever they see fit.”

If the federal judge, Magistrate Sheri Pym, rejects Apple’s arguments, the Cupertino, California-based company can appeal her order to the district court, and then up the chain to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 9th Circuit is known to be pro-privacy. “The government ultimately will have an uphill fight,” said Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department lawyer who advises companies on cyber security issues.

Farook was assigned the phone by the county health department he worked for, prosecutors said in a court filing on Tuesday. The health department had “given its consent” to authorities to search the device and to Apple to assist investigators in that search, the document said.

San Bernardino County’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Mike Ramos, said Apple’s refusal to unlock the phone was a slap in the face to the victims of the shooting and their families.

“They’d like to know details like any of us in America would like to know. Were there other threats? Were there other individuals involved?” Ramos said in a phone interview.


Dan Guido, an expert in hacking operating systems, said that to unlock the phone, the FBI would need to install an update to Apple’s iOS operating system so that investigators could circumvent the security protections, including one that wipes data if an incorrect password is entered too many times.

He said that only Apple can provide that software because the phones will only install updates that are digitally signed with a secret cryptographic key.

“That key is one of the most valuable pieces of data the entire company owns,” he said. “Someone with that key can change all the data on all the iPhones.”

The notion of providing that key is anathema to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online rights group. “Once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well,” the foundation said in a statement.

Lance James, an expert in forensics who is chief scientist with cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint, said Apple could respond to the order without providing crypto keys or specialized tools that could be used to unlock other phones.

Apple technicians could create software that would unlock the phone, allowing the company to create a backup file with all of its contents that they could provide to law enforcement, James said.

American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Alex Abdo said the government’s request risked a “dangerous” precedent. “The Constitution does not permit the government to force companies to hack into their customers’ devices,” he said.

Apple was a topic of discussion on the presidential campaign trail on Wednesday.

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination to run in the Nov. 8 election, appearing on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” said, “I agree 100 percent with the courts – in that case, we should open it (the iPhone) up. … We have to use common sense.”

Another Republican candidate, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, called it a “tough issue” that would require government to work closely with the tech industry to find a solution. Rubio said he hoped Apple would voluntarily comply with the court order.

(Additional reporting by Megan Cassella, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington, Steve Holland; and Dan Levine in San Francisco, Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Jonathan Weber)

Photo: A woman poses in a file photo illustration with an iPhone as she plays Candy Crush in New York February 18, 2014. Video game maker Activision Blizzard Inc said it will buy “Candy Crush Saga” creator King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion to strengthen its games portfolio.REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/Files



  1. Nick February 18, 2016

    Apple CEO is making a good business decision. He knows that people will not continue to buy Apple products if it’s not secure. Security is one of the reasons why people buy Apple products. His sales will actually go up if he don’t do the deal compared to what sales are now. On the flip side, politically it doesn’t look good. Remember, Tim is a CEO and not a politician. Now he could do some off the record deal with the government, but it’s going to be hard to keep it quiet.

  2. johninPCFL February 18, 2016

    “A court order demanding that Apple Inc (AAPL.O) help the U.S. government unlock the encrypted iPhone”? No, they’re asking Apple to create a custom version of IOS that has no encryption and download it to the phone without destroying the data already in the phone. The DOJ has also been ordered to pay “reasonable costs” associated with performing the task, meaning that the DOJ will own the final products and unlocking techniques. Further meaning that the DOJ can now download and read ANY iPhone they choose.
    Recall that the Feds requested that Apple build in a “back door” to IOS long before this event, and so now has the “hot button”, trumped-up event to push the case forward. The fourth amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right of the people to be “secure in their person, houses, PAPERS AND EFFECTS against unreasonable searches and seizures”. The iPhone is the modern form of “papers”, and given that 10 times as many people are killed EVERY YEAR with firearms than have been killed since 2000 by terrorists, this is unreasonable. You are ten times more likely to be shot by your drunken neighbor than killed by a terrorist.
    However, since Apple invested a few hundred million dollars building IOS (and Google a similar amount with Android for that matter) it would seem that creating a new version should be valued at a few hundred million dollars.

  3. ps0rjl February 18, 2016

    While I see both sides of this issue, the right of the individual’s privacy and the government’s desire to keep us safe, I think this is an issue that must be decided by the Supreme Court. Just as all free speech is not guaranteed ie. shouting Fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire, when should the 4th amendment be applied.

  4. 1standlastword February 19, 2016

    “On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates came out strongly on the side of law enforcement, raising the possibility of another legislative effort to require tech companies to put “backdoors” in their products.”
    The insanity of our government is its promise to protect Americans from the consequences of the problems it has created through malintent, neglect, incompetence, self-seeking greed, artifice and indifference.

    If politicians are willing to jeopardize the privacy of Americans by extracting more authority to pry into our private life for the purpose of security–before we submit to their will we should take a clear-eyed and sober-minded review of the state of our country and the conditions of our place in it after years of permanent war, unaffordable healthcare, income inequality, massive personal debt, losses of personal wealth, loss of jobs and careers…you name it!

    The fundamentals are broken folks: Look at Flint MI….There’s your image of government intervention!!!

    Politician are mostly concerned about their own skin/ chillren.

    They want to have as many protections from ordinary Americans as they can extract so that they can carry on enriching themselves and lying to the people they are pledged to serve and protect!

    Why do we need some much protection anyway???

    Apple…SYG, protect your profits and preserve a basic American right to privacy…that is your true mission here


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